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She’s survived the mean streets of Manchester and slavery in a mill. Can she survive a brutal penal colony?
Convict Tilly Marsden has to serve four years as an unpaid maid in Australia before she can get the prized Ticket of Leave.
With freedom only two months away, Tilly agrees to turn a friend’s shirt into a dress. When she discovers it was stolen, she throws it in the river.
Watching her is Joel Agnew, a convict working as an unpaid police constable. Sensing Tilly deserves a break, he dishes out some old-fashioned discipline. They both think that’s the end of the matter.
Then a body is discovered and Tilly finds herself in danger. Can Joel help her before it’s too late?
Publisher's Note: Her Convict Constable is a sweet romance with a bit of mystery and old-fashioned Victorian discipline.
Tilly Marsden staggered as the ground seemed to rock beneath her, hindering her first, tentative steps across the wharf. Instantly, her friend Sarah reached out and grabbed Tilly's arm to prevent her from falling, even though she was stumbling herself. It had taken almost four months for the massive hulk they'd just disembarked to travel across the oceans from England to Van Diemen's Land. This was the first time the convicts had set foot on land since they'd left London, and walking was a challenge.
Tilly and Sarah were near the front of the line of fifty women and girl convicts being escorted from the ship by several scarlet-coated British soldiers carrying rifles. When the ship had docked, the convicts had been taken aback to see so many people lining the wharves to greet them. Now, though, as they lurched awkwardly past the raucous crowd, they quickly realised that this was no welcome. The mostly male crowd jeered the ragged, exhausted convicts as they passed.
"The dregs of Mother England!"
"Should be hanged!"
"Should be sent back home instead of taking our work!"
"End transportation now!"
The entire crowd took up the chant of "End transportation now!" The men closest to the convicts began shaking their fists and spitting at them. Tilly instinctively moved closer to Sarah. Tilly was sixteen years old and Sarah, two years older, had looked after her for the past five years. Since the day Tilly's mother had died and she had found herself on the streets of Manchester with no family, no home and no work, she'd been dependent on Sarah. Back then, Sarah had been the leader of a gang of street urchins, whose daily mission was to steal food to ward off starvation and to pilfer something that could be pawned so they could sleep in a crowded room in a boarding-house on wet and cold nights. Sarah had taught Tilly how to distract street sellers and shopkeepers so another street waif could snatch food or goods. The first time they had been arrested, they'd been sentenced to a year of slavery at the mill. That year had been the worst Tilly had known, but on the long voyage out here, she'd been fearful that worse was to come.
It couldn't be worse surely, Tilly reassured herself. Toiling thirteen hours a day in the bewildering maze of machinery under the glare and violent hand of the brutal mill supervisor? Nothing could ever be worse than that.
A few months after their release from the mill, she and Sarah had been caught stealing again—this time two delicious-smelling pies from a pie man because they'd had nothing to eat all day. The judge had sentenced them both to eight years' transportation to Van Diemen's Land.
Tilly had only begun to realise what transportation really meant when week after week passed by on the overcrowded, stinking ship, and they still hadn't reached their destination. It had dawned on her that this sentence wasn't like being sent to gaol for eight years. She and the other convicts would never return to England. It was too far and they'd never afford the passage back. Transportation meant life.
"Just like home, eh?" said Sarah as the soldiers steered the convicts away from the wharf and the baying crowd. "Remember how we were jeered on the way to the docks in London? Like we weren't miserable enough chained to the outside of a stagecoach with all that rain coming down."
The convicts followed the soldiers along a dirt track beside a mud-coloured stream. With her legs beginning to feel normal, Tilly craned her neck to see the tops of the towering trees. They seemed to pierce the blue sky. She'd never seen trees this tall before. Reddish-brown bark peeled from the trunks and twisted on the ground in rolls that cracked sharply when the trudging convicts stepped on them. Unfamiliar birdsong, including a strange, long laughing sound, could be heard above the women's collective footfalls.
Tilly tilted her face and relished the warmth of the sun on her skin.
It was beautiful here.
She wouldn't get to appreciate it for very long, though, given they were being escorted to gaol. Despite her tiredness and fear of what would come, Tilly resolved to enjoy the walk. They passed trees and ferns, and later a brewery and sawmill, where Tilly breathed in the smells of malt and freshly cut timber. A woman in front of Tilly and Sarah pointed to a fat, fluffy bird with an enormous beak and blue feathers on its chest, sitting on a branch on one of the trees. As they watched, its large beak opened and a peal of increasingly loud laughter rang out. Delighted by the strange bird, Tilly and Sarah giggled.
The soldier nearest Tilly and Sarah pointed his rifle at them. "Shut up!"
Tilly's insides lurched and the smile froze on her lips. "What a berk," Sarah muttered. "He'd have been as poor as us in England. He was probably press-ganged into being a soldier."
Now, the soldiers led them away from the stream and through a couple of winding streets flanked by brick and stone one-storey buildings. As they turned into another street, enormous brick walls soared in front of them and Tilly guessed, without being told, that this grim fortress was where they were headed. Sure enough, the gates were flung open by two red-coated guards, and the convicts were marched into a yard set in shadow by surrounding hills. What looked like mud but smelt like shit squelched below Tilly's boots.
The gates slammed shut behind them.
A soldier barked at the women to line up in rows. Tilly, standing close to Sarah, watched as the officer in charge spoke to a severe-looking woman in a long black dress and white bonnet. After a couple of minutes' conversation, the officer led the soldiers out of the gates. Then the woman turned to address the convicts.
"My name is Mrs. Winnicott and I am matron here at the Female Factory. The first thing you will all do is disrobe and wash. Afterwards, you will be given new clothes and those you've been wearing on the ship will be burnt. You will all spend tonight here, and tomorrow those of you deemed First Class prisoners according to your crimes and your behaviour on board ship shall be selected for work by the townspeople. Second and Crime Class prisoners shall remain here."
"What does she mean?" Tilly whispered fearfully. "What'll we be? First, Second or Crime Class?"
"We'll soon find out, don't fear," Sarah whispered back. "I'll be glad to have some clean clothes, at least. Won't you?" The clothes the convicts had worn on board ship reeked and were stained with sweat and vomit.
Mrs. Winnicott motioned them towards enormous stone sinks and ordered them to take off their clothes and place them in a pile. Self-consciously, Tilly peeled off her filthy shift. When her turn came at the sink, she splashed icy cold water over her body and face. It felt good to get rid of the salt and grime.
All the time, she wondered what Mrs. Winnicott had meant by First, Second and Crime Class. Wherever they ended up, she hoped she and Sarah would be together.
Constable Joel Agnew rubbed his bleary eyes as he hurried past the elegant sandstone houses and government buildings that lined Macquarie Street, Hobart Town's main thoroughfare. It was still early morning and he was already exhausted. He'd been up late last night, breaking up a brawl outside one of the taverns near the wharves. It had been after midnight by the time he and two other constables had wrestled the drunk and aggressive free settlers into the Police Office cells. This morning, Joel's work had begun at six o'clock, when he had helped the British soldiers escort the latest batch of women convicts from the wharf to the Female Factory. Now, he was on his way to the daily meeting with Mr. Wyatt, the magistrate, to be told what the rest of today's duties would be.
It was two years and ten months since Joel himself had arrived on the wharves. Not as a free settler either—he'd been among sixty convicts brought in on the ship from England. When he'd first stood on Van Diemen's Land's soil that wet April day in 1837, Joel had expected to spend the next eight years working in a chain gang by day and sleeping in an overcrowded cell by night. But he'd been fortunate. Sir George Arthur, the previous governor of Van Diemen's Land, had established a police force, run along the lines of the one back home in England. With few of the colony's free settlers interested in police work, Governor Arthur had decided well-behaved convicts should swell the ranks. Van Diemen's Land had a different governor now, but the same deal was in place. In exchange for working for the police for very little pay, convict men could get their Ticket of Leave after three years.
Joel's good behaviour record on board ship had secured his appointment as a convict constable. It was a tough, sometimes tedious job dealing with brawlers and drunks, escorting convicts, and ensuring the townspeople kept the colony's increasingly restrictive laws. The hours were long, too, but still, it was better than building bridges in a chain gang. And once he had his Ticket of Leave, Joel could find better paid work for the remaining five years of his sentence. There was potential to do well here too, especially for a man who could read and write, even if he had come out as a convict. Joel hoped that by the time he was given his Certificate of Freedom, he would have earned enough money to buy a passage back to England to see his family again. He'd never forget the sight of his mother sobbing at the docks before the massive ship pulled Joel away from her and to the other side of the world.
Joel had changed all their lives the day he'd forged a reference from Lord Stanton.
His parents had scrimped to send him to dame school so he could have a better life. But despite being literate, he'd still ended up working as a footman at Lord Stanton's country house. He'd loathed being a servant, having to call bratty children half his age "Master Noah" and "Miss Katherine", but had tried to make the best of it, hoping to be promoted to butler one day. He'd have achieved that, too, if he'd been a few years older when the elderly butler retired and a new one was appointed. The new butler, Perry, had taken an instant dislike to Joel—the maids had said it was because he was jealous. "You're good at your job and you're a lot better looking than he is," one of the cheekier maids had told Joel, making him flush to the roots of his fiery red hair.
Whatever the reason, Perry made life increasingly difficult for Joel, picking on him constantly and giving him the worst tasks. He even made him sleep in front of the locked silver cabinet instead of in a bed, just in case a thief tried to steal the silver. When Joel dropped a knife serving dinner one night, Perry accused him of clumsiness. Joel kept quiet while in the dining room, but when they were back down in the kitchen, he rounded on the butler, accusing him of constantly undermining him, and causing him to be tired by making him sleep on the flagstone floor. Perry had dismissed him without a reference.
Joel had hoped that Lord Stanton might intervene, given he had been a footman here long before Perry's arrival. But His Lordship left the servants to his butler to deal with. So Joel had grabbed some letterhead paper from the library and written his own, glowing reference, purporting to be Lord Stanton himself. Of course, he'd been found out within a few weeks, not long after taking up a new position as senior footman in a grand house in London. He'd been arrested and sentenced to eight years' transportation for forgery.
Confounded system! But at least he might get a chance to make something of himself here in Van Diemen's Land.
Two scarlet-coated soldiers guarded the two-storey sandstone Police Office, which, like other government buildings, had been built by the earliest convicts to be transported to Van Diemen's Land, late last century. Recognising Joel's uniform, the soldiers let him through. Joel's heels clomped along the river-pebble passageway as he headed for Mr. Wyatt's office. Some of the other constables were already waiting outside Mr. Wyatt's closed door. When all of them had arrived, Mr. Wyatt summoned them in.
Mr. Wyatt, a portly man with grey hair and a ruddy complexion, sat behind his desk, wearing a tailored black coat and trousers and smoking a pipe. Curls of smoke floated towards the high ceiling. "Good morning, men," he said. "I've got an extra duty for you all today. Well, not extra as such—just something to keep an eye out for as you go about your duties. An officer's shirt was stolen from the barracks last night. Major MacLoughlin is carrying out his own investigation at the barracks, but asks for our cooperation in locating the shirt. He believes it must have been stolen by a servant, probably to pawn, so, let me see…" He scanned the constables and finally pointed at Joel. "You, Constable, can visit the pawn shops this morning, find out if anyone has handed in a shirt, and get a description of them if they have. And all of you should keep a look out for someone who plainly isn't an officer wearing an officer's shirt."
* * *
Tilly cursed as her right elbow bashed the side of the rough stone tub. Again. Every time she scrubbed the damn clothes she ended up with cuts and grazes to her hands, arms and elbows. Not to mention the way the harsh soap wrinkled and ruined her hands. Mind you, her hands had looked like an old woman's for years now, thanks to all that cursed wool picking at the mill. With a sigh, Tilly wrung out Mr. Linton's shirts and carried them over to the wooden railings, which she'd positioned in the sun.
Just two more months, she reminded herself. She'd be an unpaid servant at the Lintons' for just two more months. Then, because she'd have completed four years as a First Class prisoner without getting into any trouble, she'd be entitled to her Ticket of Leave. That meant she'd be free to work while she served the remaining four years of her sentence. Free to marry too, if she wanted. Not that Tilly had anyone in mind. Other than the officers from the barracks who occasionally called on Miss Georgiana, she hadn't encountered any young men in the almost four years she'd been a maid at the Lintons'.
Tilly jumped and almost dropped Mr. Linton's clean shirt on the dusty ground. Placing the shirt carefully on a railing, she looked around to see where the owner of the voice was hiding.
Sarah stood behind the woodshed, beckoning urgently. Tilly checked to make sure Cook or, worse, one of the Lintons, wasn't watching from the house, and dashed across the yard to meet her friend.
"What are you doing here?" Tilly demanded. She usually only saw her friend at church or when they collected water from the storage tower in Macquarie Street.
Sarah grinned. She and Tilly were as different in appearance as they were close as friends. Sarah was tall and thin, with long, wavy dark hair that cascaded from her bonnet to her shoulders. Tilly was short and plumper, with fair hair that was long but straight as a knocker-upper's pole. "Mr. Butler sent me on an errand, so I thought I'd call on you very quickly. There's something I want to ask you." Tilly startled and glanced away, embarrassed, as Sarah lifted up her grubby shift. "It's all right—you can look at me again now," Sarah teased, pressing soft material into Tilly's hands. Tilly stared at the fine white linen shirt Sarah had given her. "You're so clever with your sewing," Sarah said. "Would you turn it into a dress for me?"
Tilly checked the shirt. It was voluminous and would easily convert into a dress for Sarah. But it felt expensive and resembled the shirts Miss Georgiana's officer friends wore. "This is an officer's shirt, Sarah," she said sharply. "Where did you get it? You didn't steal it, did you?"
"Of course I didn't steal it," Sarah scoffed. "Only got two months to go to my Ticket of Leave, haven't I? Just like you. I'm not getting into any trouble. It was given to me."
"Who by?" Tilly asked suspiciously.
Sarah tapped the side of her nose. "Nothing to do with you."
"An officer gave it to you?" Tilly pressed.
Sarah tapped the side of her nose again.
"Oh, Sarah." Tilly glowered at her friend, guessing she'd been given the shirt in exchange for sexual favours. That worried Tilly as much as if Sarah had stolen it. If Sarah became pregnant, Mr. Butler would return her straight to the Female Factory. Pregnant maids were put in Crime Class, made to scrub clothes all day until they had the baby. Then they were shoved back in Crime Class once the baby was weaned.
If Sarah went back to Crime Class, there'd be no Ticket of Leave for her. Tilly had no idea how she'd go about making a new life here without Sarah by her side once she got her own Ticket of Leave.
"Forget all that, just tell me whether you'll make the dress," Sarah cajoled. "Please, Tilly. You know I don't have anything nice to wear."
"Show me a convict who does!" Tilly retorted. But she softened as she glanced at Sarah's dirty shift. However much she might hate slaving for the Lintons all day, she'd definitely been fortunate that morning when the townspeople had turned up at the Female Factory to recruit free labour. Mr. and Mrs. Linton and their daughter Georgiana were cold and distant, but they treated Tilly well. True, she worked from five o'clock in the morning till nearly midnight some days. But she was always given plenty to eat, the Lintons replaced her shifts if she tore them, and they didn't beat her. In fact, even though she was a servant, Tilly's life here was better than it had ever been. She was fed, she was clothed, she had a roof over her head. And soon she'd be able to earn a living.
Sarah had been fortunate too at first. She'd been taken on by an old lady. But the lady had died six months ago, so Sarah had been returned to the Female Factory until new employment could be found. She'd ended up with Mr. Butler. He didn't care that Sarah had only the one shift because the other had got torn. He didn't care that she sometimes went to bed hungry because there wasn't enough leftover food. He hit her too, sometimes. She'd had a black eye on occasion when she'd collected water from the storage tower. Sarah said if it weren't so close to her Ticket of Leave she'd do something to get sent back to the Female Factory, because at least she'd be fed properly there.
Tilly hated that Sarah was treated so badly and there was nothing either of them could do about it.
She owed Sarah so many favours too. Sarah had looked after her when they had been flung in a crowded cell in Newgate Prison. She had protected the younger Tilly on the long voyage from England, not letting the amorous sailors near her, though she was entertaining them herself. Sarah had taken care of Tilly for so long, without expecting anything in return.
But now Tilly had an opportunity to do something for her long-time friend. And all it entailed was a few hours after work each night, doing some needlework, which she was good at.
What did it matter if Sarah had got the shirt through sleeping with an officer? As long as she didn't get pregnant—and she hadn't so far, not on the voyage, not with the other men she'd reputedly been with—no harm could come of it.
"Of course I will," Tilly promised. She'd slip the shirt in with the clean laundry, and sneak it up to the tiny closet that for nearly four years had been her bedroom. "I'll give it to you in church on Sunday. It should be finished then."